The Gristle

Taxation and Representation
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All political power is inherent in the people, and governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.
—Washington State Constitution Article One, Section One, Sentence One

The cardinal rule of representative government is, when the consenting governed have their infrequent and fragile moment to speak on what has been proposed in their name, you do not waste their precious time or dishonor their opinion. You do not challenge that opinion. You do not argue with that opinion. You do not mock or sass or sneer at that opinion.

It is both illustrative and confirming that the operative majority of the Whatcom County Charter Review Commission—who seek to stamp their view of how representative government should operate deep into the county’s governing blueprints—should choose to do just that in response to public comments they received from citizens, sneering and mocking until they were at last shouted down in a surly meeting that bordered on abusive.

Under their proposals, four out of seven elected representatives on County Council would be untouchable by thousands of county voters—a majority controlled then by a minority—the future of your county government, brought to you by the folks who want to mold it to their tastes: A long, angry scream at the very idea of democracy.

Meanwhile, across the street, Bellingham City Council conducted their meeting with the usual mixture of quiet listening followed by respectful discussion.

The topics City Council discussed were expensive and far-reaching—the city’s commitment to the central waterfront, the jail and public safety issues, the Lake Whatcom management program and water quality issues—and while council resolved little substantive about any of these hundred-million dollar issues in their evening, each is worth examining within the context of what the conservative caucus of the Charter Review Commission proposes.

In 1978, voters approved a home rule charter to govern Whatcom County, replacing a fragile and easily corruptible commission structure in which each member was elected by his voting district. The former system was easily gamed, and two could gang on one. Voters were wise enough to include a provision that allowed the charter to be reviewed each decade to make it compliant with changes in state law and modern governance.

The majority caucus of the Charter Review Commission proposes a number of amendments that would disproportionately silence the voice of voters in the county’s population centers—roughly half of the county’s voter base—establishing the minority rule of the unincorporated rural county. Worse, their amendments would create supermajority requirements to reverse their mischief, locking in their vision of how government should operate and who should represent county interests.

We’ve commented before on the wrongheadedness of these proposals.

Any County Council agenda is predominantly, even exclusively absorbed with rural issues. The cities all have their own respective governments managing municipal concerns. City residents also pay county taxes, a lot of taxes.

Bellingham City Council this week learned more about the joint plan to manage Lake Whatcom through the end of this decade, a $100 million stabilization and restoration program over 50 years that is just one of scores of water quality projects the county must manage. Each partner, the city and the county, will contribute $5.4 million to the Lake Whatcom program through 2019, a response required by the state Dept. of Ecology. The joint councils will review this plan later this month for approval by the end of the year.

The simple metrics of Lake Whatcom are that 90 percent of it lies outside the direct control of the City of Bellingham. Of identified problems related to stormwater and pollutant discharge in the urbanized portions of the reservoir, 77 percent of those are also outside city limits and the direct control of COB. Yet the city agrees to pay 50 percent of the costs related to the restoration of Lake Whatcom.

Our prediction is, given how stretched county government is on other numerous water quality projects, the City of Bellingham may agree to undertake the disproportionate financial burden of early actions related to Lake Whatcom.

Shouldn’t Bellingham residents have a voice in how their county government chooses to spend money it is receiving from Bellingham, particularly given the disproportionate contribution to the program costs?

The City of Bellingham also contributes an amount equal to the county to maintain a top-rated $10 million joint emergency management response that serves the entire county and all of its cities.

In 2014, on the 40th anniversary of the unified service, the City of Bellingham agreed to turn management of the EMS program over to Whatcom County.

Shouldn’t Bellingham residents have a voice in how their emergency management response is managed by the county, particularly given the disproportionate contribution to the program costs?

This week, Bellingham City Council also received an update on a proposed new corrections facility in Ferndale. The proposed $122.5 million complex will increase the city’s transportation costs to the new jail and will remove active police officers from duty for significant portions of time, requiring backup and associated costs for additional patrol officers. The proposed sales tax measure to finance the jail will also foreclose upon the city’s taxing capacity through the levy horizon, crimping programs that create alternatives to jail.

The city’s financial contribution to the jail is enormous, since 80 cents out of every sales tax dollar collected by the county comes out of Bellingham, the county’s business center. The city, meanwhile, contributes just 18 percent of the jail population as misdemeanants.

Shouldn’t Bellingham residents have a voice in how the county manages its corrections facility and justice alternatives, particularly given the disproportionate contribution to the program costs?

Look, city residents recognize their contributions to the well-being of the whole of Whatcom County. Shouldn’t rural residents recognize these contributions, too?

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Past Columns

April 7, 2015

NO GET OUT OF JAIL FREE CARD: Whatcom County Council appears uneager to rush a $104 million sales tax initiative in support of a $122.5 million jail and Sheriff’s complex… more »

March 31, 2015

’HAMSTER CAGE: They hugged each other with such fierce, rapturous joy you’d think they’d been granted clemency and released from prison; and perhaps, in a sense, they had. For almost… more »

March 24, 2015

GUT CHECK: “To the winners go the spoils,” Sam Crawford observed, after a rightward lurch in election results in 2009 allowed him—as council president and in control of their process… more »

March 17, 2015

YOUR GERRYMANDERED FUTURE: Marking the midpoint of their regular legislative session in Olympia, representatives of the 42nd District held a town hall meeting at Whatcom Community College last week. The… more »

March 10, 2015

NOT PLANNING, NOT A UNIT: In 2013, Whatcom County was socked by a one-two punch that left County Council reeling. First was a citizen’s challenge upheld by the Washington Growth… more »

February 24, 2015

THE PERMANENCE OF VARIANCE: A remarkable schism opened between the afternoon and evening sessions of Bellingham City Council this week, although perhaps too few noticed.

The central puzzle facing the… more »

February 17, 2015

THE GOLDILOCKS EFFECT: What a difference an election makes! A quarter of a century after the state passed the Growth Management Act—longer than a quarter of the county’s population has… more »

February 10, 2015

ACES AND AUGHTS: Lummi Nation appears to have delivered a staggering, if not fatal blow to the proposed coal export pier at Cherry Point in their letter to the U.S.… more »

February 3, 2015

SAM ON THE LAM: Sam Crawford stunned listeners at the end of Whatcom County Council’s evening session last week, announcing he will resign from the council effective March 1. In… more »

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